April 2, 2015

Can We Read and Understand the Bible if We're Not Experts? (3)

The Bible is a big book. For a lot of our people within the schemes it is a VERY big book. Within its pages we find lots of different kinds of literature: poetry, prophecy, history, narrative, letters, and apocalyptic writings. It’s hardcore. Understanding it correctly is not easy, but it is certainly not impossible. We don’t have to go to Bible College to open up the Bible and understand it. An open Bible, in the hands of a Spirit-filled and eager reader, is a powerful thing.

There are a few traps and snares to avoid, however, and the following couple of posts will give us some very basic tips. So, what should we keep in mind as we think about reading and teaching it in our housing schemes and council estates?

  • Make sure you look up words you don’t understand. In Romans 3:25 we read, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

Propitiation is not a word familiar to many people. It’s not like it’s in everyday use (outside Bible geeks)! However, it is a massively important word in the Bible and, therefore, we need to get to grips with it.

It speaks of mending the relationship with that someone who’s angry by something you did. In this case, it is God satisfying his wrath toward man through the death of his Son.

Make sure, when trying to understand a complicated word, that you use an appropriate illustration.

Many of us work with those who have unresolved anger. It is the root of many of problems. Somebody has been abused, rejected, hurt, and/or did something to a loved one or family member. Maybe somebody is ill or has died. Maybe the perpetrator got away with it, or they think they did, and we want justice. We boil away inside. We rage. We get depressed. We want somebody to pay for these wrongs committed against us. We also often feel the need to release these emotions within us against those that have wronged us. If we do not spend that anger, and if we do not deal with that emotion inside, we will never find true peace. We will never know what true forgiveness looks like. So we need to find healthy ways to release, express, and spend our anger—to effectively channel it. This can be anything from taking up boxing classes and dealing with rage in a physical way, to journaling, where we spill out our angry thoughts on paper. Over time, as that murderous rage gets released and spent, we become calmer and some of us can even move toward forgiving those that have hurt us. For those that are Christians, we are also able to move into loving—rather than hating—those who have wronged us and reconcile where safe and possible.

Let’s now take this back to the cross. God has been deeply wronged by all of our sin—a million times more than any of us can or will ever personally experience. But, unlike us, God is completely perfect, holy and righteous by nature and has never sinned or committed any wrong. So the anger that any one of us has felt because of injustice done against us cannot compare in the slightest to the righteous wrath God carries. If we—people who do wrong and hurt others all the time—get angry at what has been done to us, how much more God? If we seek justice, how much more God?

God’s righteous rage has to be channelled. He is God. He must have justice against those who have wronged him. So, God the Son willingly laid down his life to be that object for God to channel that righteous wrath upon. There was no other way for us to be forgiven, no other way to be reconciled. There still isn’t. God’s wrath for our sin—the way we have hurt, abused, abandoned, and defiled Him—either gets emptied upon Jesus or it will one day get spent upon us.

When we understand the words, they become powerful and fill us with worship. Never skip past a word because it gives us a headache. We can miss extremely important truths that can even negatively affect our understanding of the gospel.

  • Look for repeated words and phrases. A quick study of Ephesians 1:3–14 will soon show the importance of repeated words and phrases in helping us understand the point of the text. My point is that if God has taken the trouble to repeat it, then it is very important!

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In lovehe predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s gracethat he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

  • Look for comparisons and contrasts. 1 John 3:11–18 offers us a practical chance to look at comparing and contrasting. Here it is worth noting down the difference between the children of God and the children of the devil.

“For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

  • Understand some basic history and geography. I know, I know. Boring for most of us. These were the topics dropped like hot potatoes at school. But when it comes to the Bible, they are really important. Let’s use John 4:1–5 as an example of the helpfulness of a little history and geography.

“Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph.”

In the first three verses, Jesus was having trouble with the religious leaders. They were jealous of John the Baptist because a lot of people were following him, and now Jesus was becoming more popular than him. So Jesus decides to scarper back to Galilee. If we look at a basic map from that period, then we see that it was a bit of a trek to get back there from where he was. He could have gone straight through Samaria but, as was customary for Jews, he chose to go the long route. In fact,in verse 4, we read that Jesus had to go through Samaria. That is an interesting turn of phrase. Why did he have to go through Samaria?

Again, once we have consulted a basic Bible history and geography book, we need to illustrate the point being made in John here.

Where I grew up in Halifax, there were three rival council estates: Mixy, Ovenden, and Abbey Park. As a Mixy boy, getting through the other two was a nightmare. But, sometimes we had to do it to get to the Supermarket or go to school. Usually we just avoided them by going the long way around and saving ourselves a lot of trouble and maybe a good kicking.

The same thing is going on here, except on a much greater scale. Really religious Jews would have avoided Samaria if they could. People thought of it a bit like a council estate. Only low-lifes lived there. I remember when Gavin peacock flew into Edinburgh from London. He came up on a propeller plane and he was a bit nervous. He asked the man next to him if these things were safe, and the man laughed and asked him where he was going. Niddrie, he told him. Let me put it this way, the man said, it’s safer on this plane than where you’re going to! Another time a friend of mine was staying at a B & B in the city, and he wanted the owner to call him a taxi to Niddrie to make our morning service. But they refused to do it, and they tried to talk him into going to a church down the road in a better area. They just point blank refused to call him a taxi. For your own good, they said to him. It is not a place with a good reputation with outsiders.

The same was true for Samaria. The people who lived there were regarded as no better than sewer rats. Respectable Jews never went anywhere near the place. The land had originally been in Jewish hands ever since Jacob bought some land there back in Genesis. He built the well of today’s story and then he handed it on to Joseph. Joseph went to Egypt, and when he died he instructed his people to carry his bones to come back to this plot of land. We read in Joshua 24:32 that they did do that after the wilderness years.

The Jews thought of it as holy. Abraham and Isaac had built altars there. The Jews loved the area. But in 720 BC, the Assyrians hated the Jews, invaded the holy land, conquered it, and took them all off to captivity (2 Kings 17:23–24). They left some people back in the home nation. They kill the men, rape the women, and try to destroy their whole culture. Those Jews who did remain were inter-mixed with the Assyrians. So they moved their people into their homes and bred them out. It was like what the English were trying to do with the Scots in Braveheart. They wanted to breed them out so they wouldn’t raise an army against them in future generations. So those left behind had to make a decision—should they obey God or follow this new stuff? Sadly, history shows that they went from following God to offering child sacrifices. So when the Jews eventually came out of exile and went back to their land and found these mixed breeds living there, they hated them with a passion. Land and homes that had been owned by families for generations had been torn down or taken over by strangers. People were angry. It’s like the council knocking down all the old houses, then moving people all across the city, and now we find new people moving into these new homes all around us and bringing with them their weird ways.

The Samaritans wanted to help rebuild the temple in Ezra and Nehemiah when the Jews got back from exile, but the Jews were having none of it. So the Samaritans decided to try and do everything to stop them rebuilding it, and even joined forces with God’s enemies. The Jews never forgot this, and so Samaritans were not allowed to enter the temple or have any contact with Jews. The Samaritans went off and built their own temple on Mt. Gerazim and set up a religion similar to the Jews. They invented their own system. This goes on for about 300 years. Then about 120 years before Jesus, the Jews march through Shechem, march up the mountain, and burn down their temple. These people were thought of as sub-human. Street children. Trailer trash. These are the sorts of people you find on the Jeremy Kyle Show. Any Jew caught in the area would be arrested and beaten, and vice versa.

This is the background that Jesus walks into. This is the area Jesus had to go through. He could have gone the long way round, like most other Jews, but he had to go through Samaria because I believe God wanted him to. God, if you read on in the text, had somebody ‘important’ for him to meet.

A little bit of knowledge of history and geography opens up the Bible in amazing ways. Get hold of a good illustrated Bible dictionary. It will be money well spent. We don’t have to be amazing scholars to understand the Bible. We just have to be motivated, prayerful, and care enough about the Lord and his revealed Word to put in the effort. The Holy Spirit will do the rest, and we will grow in knowledge, love, and the truth.

Happy studying.

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